Here we go, Canada ...

February, 14, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As I arrived in Vancouver on Sunday, I am genuinely excited, like I haven't been for anything I've covered as a sportswriter in years. The 2010 Olympic men's hockey tournament has the potential to provide us with the most thrilling moments this sport has seen in decades.

For starters, the tournament is on the sport's home soil. We will be reminded of this too often, that Canada invented this game. And an American-like jingoism will build among Canadian fans already as the men's tournament begins Tuesday. But it is indeed a fact: This is a sport brought to the rest of the world by tiny little Canada, just like the NHL was also a Canuck creation.

Sure, Canada hosted a Winter Games before in 1988, but Wayne Gretzky and the boys were busy playing three games in four nights in the NHL while amateurs did their best at the brand-new Saddledome.

In case anyone doubts how crazy Canada is getting for this tournament, consider that I was asked the following by four complete strangers between check-in and boarding my flight out of Toronto today:

"Why didn't Stamkos make this team?"

"Is Getzlaf going to play?"

"Please tell me we're going to beat the Russians, eh?"

"Are we going to win gold?"

No, the quality of this tournament and its importance has no precedent in Canada. I know, I know, the 1972 Summit Series will never be topped. But there was no Olympic gold medal on the line, it was just us against them.

If you want to talk about the most exciting international hockey played by pros in this country, I challenge anyone to tell me it wasn't the 1987 Canada Cup. Larry Murphy as the wheel man as Gretzky drops it to Super Mario. Cue the Copps Coliseum meltdown.

And don't even bother with the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. It was excellent hockey, but Shane Doan's winner at the Air Canada Centre was overshadowed in the same week by the NHL's closing its doors for a season. The impending lockout cast a huge shadow over that tournament, the last best-on-best event held in Canada.

So, here we are, the 2010 Winter Olympics, and a hockey tournament that has me salivating. The timing of it is simply brilliant when you account for the young stars that have taken over this game: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Drew Doughty, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jonas Hiller ... the game hasn't been this blessed in talent since Nos. 99 and 66 took turns swapping NHL scoring titles.

The home team, well, it's pretty darn good. But the pressure on Canada will be unheard of, the kind of pressure a Canadian hockey player hasn't felt since Game 8 in Moscow over 37 years ago.

Oh, and by the way, the Russians are the two-time defending world champions, something that seems to get overlooked, although Team Canada boss Steve Yzerman made sure to mention it Saturday. The Russians, also led by Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Andrei Markov, have elevated their country's game to its highest level since the Iron Curtain came down two decades ago.

The Swedes? Gee, must be tough having Henrik Zetterberg as your possible third-line center behind Backstrom and Henrik Sedin. Oh, and they are defending Olympic champs, you know.

Finland? No one ever talks about the Finns. But in the three NHL Olympics, they've won a silver and a bronze.

The Czechs don't have Dominik Hasek anymore, but have a red-hot Tomas Vokoun and a re-energized Jaromir Jagr, who is hungry to prove he wasn't put out to pasture in the KHL.

The Slovaks can always score goals, and will do so again with Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa leading the way, but now they finally have a goalie in Jaroslav Halak. Watch out.

And finally, we have the young bucks from the United States. No one is going to bet a dime on them in Vegas ... OK, you've heard that line a million times from GM Brian Burke. But there's something about these American kids that makes me think they might have a surprise or two in store for us. Ruin Canada's party? It certainly would be sweet for them.

If there's one thing about a minority of Canadian hockey fans that bothers me, it's their general lack of understanding of international hockey. You see, some of them believe that because Canada wins the world juniors almost every year, the same should happen at the Olympics. But that's apples and oranges.

First, by limiting the age group in the world juniors, Canada gains a huge advantage by being able to pick their teens from a bigger talent pool. The ageless talent pool in the Olympics helps the other countries make up the difference among their elite skaters. Second, the fact Canada basically hosts the world juniors every other year gives it an unfair advantage.

No, if there's a better comparison to what Canada is up for here at the Olympics, it's the World Championships held annually in Europe. There, in a tournament the European countries take much more seriously than the world juniors, Canada has had a much tougher time.

Case in point: Over the past 15 men's World Championships from 1995-2009, Canada won four gold medals (1997, 2003, 2004, 2007); over the same time span at the word juniors, the Canadians won eight gold medals.

I'm not trying to spoil the party for my fellow Canadians; I did after all pick the host country to win gold. But what I'm saying is, it's far from a guarantee Canada will win it all, but that shouldn't take away from what will be a great tournament no matter who wins.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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